Neoliberalism and the Sweetness of Commerce
Jessica Whyte

August 14, 2018, 12:00pm - 1:30pm
PHI research group, Deakin University

221 Burwood Hwy
Burwood 3125

This will be an accessible event, including organized related activities


Deakin University


In his classic 1977 book The Passions and the Interests, Albert Hirschman identified a distinctive argument for the civilizing effects of the market. On Hirschman’s telling, the argument that commerce was a source of “sweetness, softness, calm and gentleness” (douceur) appealed to seventeenth-century Europeans who longed to be free of warring passions. This celebration of the moral virtues of commerce became difficult to sustain in a context marked by the French Revolution, the Napoleonic Wars and the social dislocation of the industrial revolution; the subsequent period was dominated by anxieties that, far from promoting morality and “civilization”, the market was undermining moral virtues, disrupting traditional forms of life and producing widespread anomie, atomization and class conflict. By the twentieth-century, Hirschman concludes, no observer could contend that the hopeful vision of the market had been borne out by events. This paper shows, in contrast, that, in the most inauspicious circumstances of the early twentieth-century, neoliberalism was founded on an attempt to revive the argument for the civilizing and pacifying role of the market. For Friedrich Hayek, Ludwig von Mises and Milton Friedman, an unrestrained competitive market would replace violence, force and coercive colonial rule with peaceful, mutually-beneficial, voluntary relations. Yet, just as the original sweetness of commerce thesis was developed in a context marked by the brutal violence of European colonization and the slave trade, the neoliberal civilizing mission is best understood as a permanent war for competitive markets.

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